Public safety spectrum, rural broadband grab spotlight

More work must be done to close digital divide, speakers at Wireless Communications Association confab say

Speakers at the US Wireless Communications Association (WCA) meeting this week threw out a flurry of suggestions to improve both public and private broadband access in the United States, from public investment to holding new spectrum auctions to allowing unlicensed use of TV "white spaces."

The digital divide between urban and rural areas in the United States has long been a concern for policymakers who worry that slow telecom infrastructure is leaving people in rural communities at a competitive disadvantage. Former Virginia governor Mark Warner, who is currently running for the US Senate, told the WCA in his keynote address that building out broadband infrastructure to rural areas would be one of the big challenges of the next few decades, as global competition would put more competitive pressure on American workers to have access to high-speed Internet.

"Imagine if we had said 100 years ago that if your town wasn't on a railroad, or 50 years ago that if your town wasn't on an interstate highway, then you got left behind," he said. "That sort of thinking does a tremendous disservice to people living in rural parts of America. . . . I think this infrastructure is a critical part of any kind of economic hope."

One way to deploy broadband more easily and quickly, Warner said, would be to treat broadband infrastructure more as a public utility that gets installed along with new roads in developing communities. Thus, argued Warner, every time a city or town lays down pavement for a new road, it should also install a fiber optic cable even if that particular area isn't yet ready to be connected. The point, according to Warner, is to have the infrastructure in place and ready to go as soon as broadband capabilities come to the area.

Another possibility for bringing high-speed Internet access to more rural areas, said speakers at the WCA meeting, is the use of unoccupied television "white spaces" to deliver wireless broadband connections. But while everyone at the WCA agreed that white spaces could help expand the reach of broadband in the United States, there has been a great deal of controversy over just what kind of access ISPs should have to the unused spectrum. On one side is the White Spaces Coalition, an industry group including Google, Dell and other tech companies that has been lobbying the FCC to approve wireless devices that will operate without licenses on white spaces. On the other side is the US National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which has argued that using unlicensed personal, portable devices on white spaces would inevitably interfere with television signals and be detrimental to the entire broadcasting industry.

Kelly Williams, the senior director of engineering and technology policy for the NAB, staked out this inflexible position during a debate over the use of white spaces at the WCA meeting, saying that having portable devices operate unlicensed on those spaces was a nonstarter. From the NAB's point of view, he said potentially having unlicensed portable devices on white spaces interfere with television-broadcast signals was completely unacceptable, and no amount of testing by the Federal Communications Commission could change the NAB's mind.

Williams did say, however, that the NAB was much more open to the idea of using white spaces for fixed, licensed wireless access points in rural areas, because it would be much easier to create intelligent protocols for devices that remain largely in one place.

"We really are just against the portable devices, and we wholeheartedly support fixed rural-broadband applications," he said. "All of the testing for unlicensed portable devices is actually holding up fixed rural-broadband applications. They're doing it in Canada now, and we could do it in the United States."

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